On Wednesday, Sen. Patrick Leahy asked departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates about future U.S. relations with Pakistan and other "governments that lie to us." Gates responded, in his flat Kansas twang, that "most governments lie to each other. That's the way business gets done."
Gates' Realpolitik answer before the Senate Appropriations Committee drew appreciative laughter from the audience and the usual press kudos for his "refreshing candor," but Gates' response could also be a reminder about his own dubious honesty regarding his role in major government scandals.
After all, if "most governments lie to each other," it follows that government officials do the lying and the U.S. government is not immune from the practice. So, if Gates felt that his work for past presidents -- while he was at the CIA or the White House -- needed to be protected by lying, would he lie?
Despite his current reputation for candor, Gates' honesty or lack thereof was a key issue during his earlier incarnation as a young, ambitious national security bureaucrat elbowing his way through the corridors of Washington power in the 1980s and early 1990s.
For various reasons, from his personal charm to his powerful patrons, Gates evaded serious investigations of his questionable activities in those years. Both in official testimony then and in his 1996 memoir, From the Shadows, Gates provided only sweeping denials of accusations coming from both U.S. government co-workers and international intelligence operatives.
Gates relied on his influential allies in the Executive Branch, Congress and the Washington press corps to shut down any full-scale examination of what he actually did. Thus, Gates emerged from several scandals -- mostly relating to secret dealings with Iran, Iraq and Israel -- relatively unscathed.
However, two decades ago, U.S. history could have taken a very different course if Gates and his cohorts had faced real accountability and their secrets had been exposed. That more contentious route was opened in 1991 when President George H.W. Bush nominated Gates, then Bush's deputy national security adviser, to become CIA director.
Indeed, Bush's selection of Gates represented its own mystery: Why would Bush risk adding fuel to still-smoldering investigative fires, especially since Gates's first nomination to head the CIA had been rebuffed by the Senate in 1987 because of doubts about his honesty regarding the Iran-Contra scandal?
Did Bush's stratospheric poll numbers after the Persian Gulf War create a sense of hubris, or was the President desperate, needing a co-conspirator at the CIA's helm to stop dangerous disclosures of incriminating information?
In 1991, Gates' nomination stood at a crossroads of several intersecting scandals including:
--The Iran-Contra investigation led by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who had just penetrated a long-running White House cover-up of the secret arms deals from 1985-86 and who had revealed the hidden role of the CIA where Gates had lurked in the background as the agency's deputy director.
--The October Surprise case, an Iran-Contra prequel of secret dealings with Iran dating back to the 1980 presidential campaign, an inquiry which finally had reached a critical mass of congressional interest amid belated mainstream press attention (with Gates and Bush linked to those allegations as well).
--Iraq-gate, suspicions that President Ronald Reagan and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush had covertly aided and armed Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, which represented an embarrassment given the just-completed Persian Gulf War against Hussein (with Gates again implicated in those secret dealings on behalf of Reagan and Bush).
--Politicization of U.S. intelligence, a behind-the-scenes dispute at the CIA which was brought into the daylight by veteran CIA analysts who accused Gates of waging bureaucratic war on their independent judgment and giving the Reagan administration pre-cooked conclusions to support desired policies.